National Security

Bad and Worse Options in Iraq

As ISIL continues to fight, Iraq's military is ill-equipped. But what to do?

Jul. 15, 2014

The headlines about violence in Iraq have faded somewhat, but that doesn’t mean all is well. The problem now is pinning down what the problem is. In recent months, jihadis from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), now calling itself simply the Islamic State, have overrun much of northern Iraq, though their advance has seemingly been slowed by the Iraqi military. So where do things stand?

Barack Obama announced in June that he is sending nearly 800 U.S. troops back to Iraq to serve in advisory and training roles. But The New York Times reports on a disturbing new development that may have repercussions for that effort. According to the Times, “A classified military assessment of Iraq’s security forces concludes that many units are so deeply infiltrated by either Sunni extremist informants or Shiite personnel backed by Iran that any Americans assigned to advise Baghdad’s forces could face risks to their safety, according to United States officials.”

Furthermore, “The report concludes that only about half of Iraq’s operational units are capable enough for American commandos to advise them if the White House decides to help roll back the advances made by Sunni militants in northern and western Iraq over the past month.” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argues the Iraqi military may be capable of defending Baghdad, but they’re not able to mount a counteroffensive to reverse ISIL’s gains.

To put it mildly, the options in Iraq are not good. ISIL’s Sunni jihadis are fighting to establish a Muslim caliphate across the entire Mesopotamian region, and they’ve been successful to a degree. The border between Iraq and Syria is virtually meaningless at present, as ISIL also fights Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime. The U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army has reportedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

Meanwhile, both the Iraqi and Syrian governments have become increasingly beholden to Iran, which is arguably the world’s premiere sponsor of terrorism (see Hamas’ work in Israel). Obama’s abandonment of Iraq in 2011 didn’t help. U.S. interests would be served by both sides losing – but that’s not easily attainable, especially for a commander in chief who doesn’t know or care about true U.S. interests.

Still, Lt. Gen. Joseph Votel, head of Joint Special Operations Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee the U.S. shouldn’t just sit back and watch. He said there are “risks to allowing things just to try to resolve themselves, particularly when there are interests that could affect our country.”

The least-bad option is to work to defeat ISIL since these jihadis pose a threat to the entire region and to the West. Putting them out of business is a key part of defeating al-Qaida and its spawn. Then we can turn our attention to the governments of Iraq and Syria. The latter has long been a proxy of Iran, but we didn’t spend enormous blood and treasure in Iraq so it could also become one, too.

As far as regime change in Syria, however, it’s arguable that thug dictators are the best we can hope for in terms of stability in the Muslim world. Moammar Gadhafi’s demise in Libya provides a good (or should we say bad) example of the chaos that ensues when we help topple such a regime without a plan for the aftermath. Ousting Assad may create worse problems in Syria, especially given the rising power of ISIL in the opposition.

Whatever the strategy or options, in the end, we can count on the Obama administration to choose the worst one and run with it.

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